Jim Fisk liked to live large – too large for his own good. He rose from humble beginnings in Vermont to the pinnacle of success on Wall Street as one of the most colorful and notorious robber barons in history.
Along the way he swindled the richest man in the United States, bought opera houses, put caged canaries in steamboats and stables and paraded around in gaudy uniforms straight out of a comic opera. But underneath his buffoonish exterior lay a shrewd, driven businessman.
Among his misdeeds were the theft of the Erie Railroad and the failed attempt to corner the gold market. He might have done more had he not died at 37, the victim of his own weakness for beautiful women other than his wife.
Young Jim Fisk
He was born on April 1, 1835 in Pownal, Vt., but moved at a young age to Brattleboro. He left school at age 12 to help his father, a peddler. When Jim Fisk turned 15 the circus came to town, and he could not resist the circus’s gaudy spectacle and noisy hokum. He ran away to join Van Amberg’s Mammoth Circus & Menagerie as a menagerie manager, roustabout and ticket taker.
Years later, he carried himself like a carnival barker despite his Wall Street millions.
At 18 he returned home to help run his father’s business, which he expanded into five wagons that he decorated in circus colors. Jim Fisk later claimed those were the happiest days of his life.
“I had everything I hankered after, money, friends, stock, trade, credit, and the best horses in New England,” he wrote. “Besides, by God, I had a reputation. There wasn’t no man that could throw dirt onto Jim Fisk.”
Then he went to Boston to work for the Jordan Marsh department store. His ostentatious checked suits and blustery manner did not help him in his career as a dry goods salesman. The company owner, Eben Jordan, told him to go back to peddling. But the Civil War broke out, and he talked Jordan into giving him the responsibility for obtaining military contracts.
He moved to Washington’s Willard Hotel, set up a bar and buffet in his room and invited Congressmen to partake. Soon, orders came pouring in for blankets, woolens, uniforms, socks and underwear. Jordan Marsh manufactured textiles as well as sold them to the public, and Fisk urged Jordan to buy more mills. When he learned that a mill in the village of Gaysville, Vt., was the only one that made a kind of textile the government needed, he bought it.
In the end, Jim Fisk made a fortune through bribing government officials, smuggling cotton through the Union blockade for northern mills and selling Confederate bonds to European investors. But he never sold shoddy goods to the Union Army, as did war profiteers like J.P. Morgan.
He never fought in the war, but he loved military pomp. So later, when he bailed out the bankrupt Ninth Regiment of the New York National Guard, they made him an honorary colonel. That gave him an excuse to have his tailor make a flashy, gold-trimmed uniform.
When he bought a controlling interest in the Narragansett Steamship Co., he put a brass band on deck and a canary in every stateroom. Though he knew nothing of the sea, he greeted passengers in a phony, diamond-studded admiral’s uniform and a stream of nautical gibberish.
Ever ambitious, Jim Fisk moved to New York, where he grew his fortune speculating on Wall Street.
He teamed up with two other shady financiers, Jay Gould and Daniel Drew. The three men bribed and cheated their way to gain control of the Erie Railroad. In the process, they took $100 million from Cornelius Vanderbilt. They kept their ill-gotten gains in the Erie’s offices for fear the government would seize it. When they learned a New York judge ordered their arrest, they debated fleeing to New Jersey.
“Up in Brattleboro in my kid days,” Jim Fisk said, “I used to see people avoid interviews with the sheriff by crossing the bridge over the Connecticut (into New Hampshire), and once there they would let the Vermont sheriff whistle for them.”
“I always did like the air of Jersey,” he added. The three scoundrels bribed the New York Legislature to retroactively legalize their scheme to rob Vanderbilt.
He and Gould then tried to corner the gold market, triggering the 1869 financial panic known as “Black Friday.” Though the crash caused untold suffering, the poor and working class admired Jim Fisk for his generosity. He allowed anyone with a hard-luck story into his offices, where he or his managers quietly gave them money.
Shortly after his death, someone published a ballad about him that read, in part,
We all know he loved both ‘women and wine,
But his heart it was right I am sure;
He lived like a prince in his palace so fine,
Yet he never went back on the poor.
At the age of 19, Jim Fisk married 15-year-old Lucy Moore of Springfield, Mass. He loved her tenderly but not exclusively.
Lucy lived in Boston while Jim Fisk lived large in New York City. She didn’t seem to mind his affairs, perhaps because she had her own extramarital amour, Fanny Harrod.
In New York, Jim Fisk patronized the arts, though some characterized him as a ‘greasepaint guerilla.’ He bought or leased three of the city’s finest theaters, and put the Erie Railroad’s offices in one of his opera houses. Rumors flew that he invited a score of half-naked showgirls into the railroad office, ‘ordering champagne and pickled oysters from Delmonico’s and indulging in orgies that brought Rome to ruin.’
He kept six elaborate coachmen, dressed footmen in livery, and put canaries in cages above each of his horse’s stalls.
One day he visited the notorious Manhattan bordello of Annie Wood, who introduced him to an unemployed actress named Helen Josephine “Josie” Mansfield.
Josie had her own colorful past. A descendant of John Alden, she claimed her stepfather had sexually abused her and pimped her out. Josie personified the Victorian’s rather plump ideal of beauty, and Jim Fisk fell for her hard.
Soon he installed her in oriental splendor in a nearby brownstone staffed with a butler, cook, chambermaid and coachman. Behind her back, people called her the Cleopatra of Twenty-Third Street.
But even Jim Fisk honored the code of the day, and he kept her away from fashionable places like Delmonico’s restaurant and his box at his Grand Opera House. Then he made the mistake of introducing her to one of his business associates, Edward “Ned” Stokes.
Josie and Ned fell in love. Eventually Jim Fisk figured out she was cheating on him with Ned and confronted her. She countered that he cavorted with actresses behind her back.
Jim Fisk told Ned Stokes to stay away from her. “Ask me anything else, Jim,” Stokes said. “Anything else in the world, I’ll do; but I can’t keep away from Josie. I love her—and she loves me!”
For her part, Josie couldn’t understand why all three of them couldn’t continue to be friends.
Then Josie and Ned threatened to blackmail Jim Fisk with letters he had sent her. Instead of paying up, he apologized to his wife and sued Ned Stokes. The exposure of his treachery infuriated Stokes.
At about 4 o’clock on the afternoon of Jan. 6, 1872, Jim Fisk went to see a family friend at the Grand Central Hotel. He went up the stairs and reached the second step when he saw Ned Stokes with something in his hand. A second later he saw a flash and felt a ball enter his abdomen, then he felt a second ball in his left arm. Jim Fisk then staggered toward the door, where witnesses helped him and took him to a room in the hotel.
He died the next day at the age of 37. Jay Gould and William “Boss” Tweed stood by his bedside.
After several trials, Ned Stokes went to Sing Sing Penitentiary for four years. To this day, the Colt House Revolver is known among collectors as the Jim Fisk model or the Jim Fisk pistol, as Ned Stokes used it to kill him.
The Passing of Jim Fisk
Jim Fisk’s body was laid out for viewing at his Grand Opera House, where 20,000 mourners came to pay their respects.
New York’s opinion leaders like Horace Greeley had condemned Jim Fisk for his adultery and his corrupt business dealings. But even Greeley mourned his passing.
He ran an obituary in his New York Herald: “His vivacity … his incessant, effervescing good humor … his bands of music and flocks of canary birds … his boyish love of show, of colors and gems and golden braid; that reckless frankness, which made the world the confidant of his business, his dreams and his affections; his insatiable thirst for applause; the world to him a stage, and his whole life, even those phases of life which decorum veils, an acted comedy no more striking phenomenon of human nature has been seen in our time … It is not for us to speak of retribution. And oh, friends, think that the poor always swarmed around his gates and never went hungry away, and that those who knew him best shed tears over his death bed!”
He was buried in Brattleboro.
With thanks to Jim Fisk, The Career of an Improbable Rascal, by W.A. Swanberg. This story was updated in 2023.